Last fall novelist Lois Gould, author of "Such Good Friends" and "La Presidenta," left her Manhattan loft in search of a quiet place to write. She found it on Ireland's West Coast, at a County Mayo country hotel known as Mount Falcon Castle. What follows are excerpts from Gould's journal of her Irish year.
Oct. 11, 1989. Mount Falcon Castle, Ballina. The Irish road moves in mysterious ways. I meant to be in a rented cottage tonight, in Sligo or South Donegal. In the mist I found Mount Falcon instead. I remembered it; I'd landed here by accident once before. One lovely night, a year ago. Remembered two springer spaniels, mother and son. Their mistress Constance Aldridge, once inadequately dubbed the wittiest octogenarian in the West. Chestnut trees, cows, squashy old flowered chintz sofas, log fires, booklined alcove beneath the little turret, a writing desk . . .
And magically the key breaks off in my hired-car's ignition. I cannot move on, as if I wanted to. Constance Aldridge says softly: "We've got a wolfhound now. Coragh." A ragged silver giantess regards me with Celtic gold eyes. Coragh. So. It's settled. Not Sligo. Not Donegal. I was meant to stop here.
Oct. 14, Mount Falcon. Constance offers me the little study; the writing table. Wolfhound and I drive to the sea, to celebrate, in soft rain. Old coast guard station, long and narrow as a stone ship, dares us to follow the rainbow that darts behind it like a shy ghost.
Oct. 28. Thirty hours of rain! Coast road awash, bridge collapses, River Deal bursts its banks . . . A tree falls in our forest, making no sound. But all lights out. Sky the color of fine old shagreen. Windows silvered, whitened, and now the rain falls silent, so fine one can no longer hear or feel it.
Halloween coming, town full of cheap tricks and nasty-looking treats. On-again, off-again house party, smart Dubliners coming to play "Murder Weekend" at Mount Falcon. Bodies in the fishermen's freezer? Constance murmurs incantations: gravlax, elderflower sorbet. The house suddenly fills, comes to life before one's eyes.
Oct. 30. Amazing sky, hand-of-God clouds, rainbows two at a time. Out to Downpatrick Head, to stare at the somber, towering mass of rock that stands in the sea, torn from the headland an eon or two ago. Puffins and kittiwakes gathered on their separate ledges, forecasting the weather, each to each. Their fantastic aerie rears up out of the churning froth like some surreal condominium. I gaze at them across the chasm, from the soft, dangerous edge of the headland; moss sighs underfoot, and mushrooms grow in perfect circles, violet-bottomed, pleated, ladies assembled for the grandest opera. This land's end will break off too, like a great soggy green teacake. All of a sudden, some day like this.
Dragged my dreaded duffel, full of words, down the stair, into my alcove. To unpack, to stare at, amazed, like a mushroom contemplating a freak of nature across a great divide.
Nov. 1. "Are you writing?" Constance bursts in. "Come and see the rooms." We have a tour of the guest quarters, beautifully proportioned rooms, fitted with lovely and odd old pieces. Cheval glasses on easels; harpsichord with keys the color of George Washington's teeth.
From the windows, trees lightly turning. It is still warm, apples falling gently as the rain. None of the crisp air of a New England fall, the snap of a New York "season." I think, hands buried in wet dog fur, that I am a world away from ambition and success. And from my life. If I work well, and I will, that is not the all of what this flight is about.
Come stir the Christmas pudding, Constance says. Make a wish.
My second-hand manual Irish typewriter is ready, fresh from its third repair. The "sinead fadagh" key still sticks. Well, how many Irish accent marks will I need for a novel set on an Aegean island?
Nov. 14. Fog a milk veil over Enniscrone strand, and even my bold spaniels were afraid. Our footsteps disappeared as we made them, tide so far out it formed a new horizon. No sky, no town, no sea, no dune, and if we strayed a few yards from one another, no us. I watched Dudley the brave running over his shadow upon the whiteness, running in circles because there was nowhere to run to or from. Gay clung to my heels and Coragh for once had no heart to chase either of them. We ventured far enough to know the wisdom of venturing no farther; then turned back. In less than half an hour. Not a real walk, not a real time. The dogs had known from the outset; it was the whiteness they feared. And I learned to fear it too. It seemed smooth and pure, soft and soothing as a milk bath. But it was death.
Nov. 15, Cloghan's Pub, Ballina. Poetry reading tonight. Richard Murphy, Mayo's current circuit writer, celebrating lonely offshore islands, including Inishbofin in Connemara. I wandered there last year, with a black island mutt as a tour guide. They say he meets every boat, selects a traveler, shows all the best parts. No tips. Murphy's High Island was lonelier, farther offshore. The poet and his notebook, in a cleft rock, listening to storm petrels . . . Murphy asks me for a piece of my journal, for The Mayo Anthology. I tell him it's all about the rain. He's pleased; no one here ever writes about the rain.
Nov. 18, Belfast. Dinner with friends in a small green jewel box, French, dark, endless wine, food we couldn't see, and at the end, Sambucca aflame, dipping of fingers therein, then sucking off the blue fire and the sweetness. One, two, can you dip all five into the fire? I burned myself more than once. But an evening filled with talk and laughter, kind words about my work from strangers, finally to bed in a firelit room, my friends having selected books for my bedside -- the art of the Gonzaga, Swift, Chatwin.
And I reflect that Belfast, even Belfast, is like any city at the ragged end of this savage century: No-go areas and botanic gardens; violence, crystal conservatories, dinner a la Belle Epoque. Sweet, terrible, insoluble life. Fortunate to be a stranger briefly in town, safely tucked in for the tender night.
Dec. 12, Mount Falcon. Rainless weeks, then a sudden lashing storm, winds muttering darkly. I climb rocks, clearing my head, clinging to dune grass. Horizontal rain. When I first arrived, a friend warned me of this. The rain blows sideways! he said. . . .
Power failures. Mount Falcon in candlelight, as it must have looked when Constance came, as a bride, 60 years ago.
Jan. 23, 1990. Constance strides into the woods in a brilliant red-and-yellow lumberjacket, carrying a cutting basket. She returns with bunches of white snowdrops, yellow aconite, feathery moss . . . to arrange in little bowls. How did you know they were blooming in the woods? I asked. I knew the date, she said.
Feb. 14. Mount Falcon closes for spring cleaning; Constance off for six weeks; I am alone with dogs . . . and my pages. New flotsam every day from storms -- a cow's leg, stone walls, foliage from distant forests. The wind is one of those that slam the car door as you try to climb out. One of those that whip your jacket strings and fling sand in your eyes, your shoes, your teeth. One of those that fight you every step -- and even when you walk with it at your back, it pitches you forward onto the rocks.
March 12. Air ticket home expiring, rent and life due in New York. Have answered no mail. Is what you are writing worth cutting down a tree for? asks my environmentalist son. Of course not.
April 1. Coragh brushed and silvery lies peacefully in the spruced-up drawing room, where newly slipcovered cushions sit like company waiting for company. First fishermen of the season arrive tonight. The young salmon are running. Constance home, carving the lamb. Linen napkins poised for flight in the wine-glasses.
Daffodils and jonquils in the woods.
Finished draft. Written on the gale-force wind. But written. . . .
Oct. 10. Manuscript being revised. A gilt-edged card arrives: The Irish Times and Aer Lingus request pleasure of my company . . . Come see huge prizes awarded to writers. Pots of gold at the end of Irish rainbows.
So, a night in Dublin: the Green Apple. Will it be like New York? Writers careering around in suits? Muttering darkly of publishers and sales and literary critics? Staring fixedly past each other's left ears to see who is worthier of Hello?
The prize-winners: A.S. Byatt, international fiction prize, for Possession, a great gleaming faceted gem of a "Victorian" romance; John McGahern, Irish fiction prize, for Amongst Women, a haunting lament for an old Irish rebel outliving his lost cause. And for Irish poetry, Ciaran Carson's Belfast Confetti, a stunning horror comic which he says isn't about Belfast, but of Belfast. And why would an airline be showering writers -- foreign and domestic -- with prizes? Aer Lingus says this is the land of writers. Surely tourists will always come to celebrate this.
Oct. 19, Dublin. A captive flock of great crested word-peckers. Antonia Byatt, fresh from winning the Booker too, dazed by the sudden attack of money and attention. Her elusive character, the dead poet Christabel, would have protested: My Solitude is my Treasure . . .
John McGahern murmurs about the close voting, the narrow edge by which he lost the larger pots of gold. (And half a joke ago, he said there was no difference between the Booker Committee and Ireland's censorship board, which once ordered a bookseller to rip a McGahern novel in half before shipping it.)
Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro started at the sound of my name. She was certain, she said kindly, that I had died long ago. A tragic young death.
Thomas Keneally, Australian novelist, kept trying to herd us all out of the Royal Dublin Society Library, into a proper pub. It was Keneally who broke the hall phone at Mount Falcon two weeks ago, with a bent 50-pence coin, rendering me more incommunicado than usual. "Sorry I wrecked your career," he joshed at the time. Tonight he said it again.
In a sudden clearing, John Banville and Byatt exchange favorite lines of German lyric poets. Celan, Rilke. Never so sweet a trade of one-liners at any literary gathering in New York.
Then Carson, the Belfast poet, meets Alice Munro. Alice Munro? he gasps. I love you. Alice Munro? I love Alice Munro. There was more. He trailed her. Her smile remained lovely.
Each winner got a commemorative silver dish. Elaborately carved. Bas-relief symbols of writing: the quill; the computer console. I swear. Tiny graven images of computer consoles. I could tell it was time to go.
Back to the golden West. Brilliant sky, Pontoon road in dying sun, bracken gleaming, summit of Neiphin violet in the distance, like an eloquent shrugged shoulder.
Nov. 15, Mount Falcon. Soft days, fragrant mist, sun fleeting as a Cheshire-cat smile. And oh, the book done. Bright and sudden as a full double rainbow. Catching the breath. I wander, wet dogs racing at my side. We scavenge the strands for last treasures: live mussels, lavender starfish, sea-snail shells the color of moonstone and peridot. In the city, any city, would I still shout my news into someone's message machine? Here, celebration is muted, private as the struggle of writing. I make my quiet announcement to the sea. I break into song: Take you home again, Kathleen.
Lois Gould's seventh novel, "Medusa's Gift," will be published in the fall of 1991.